Born Margaret Kirk Sangster; also known as Mrs Blair; Mrs Ashley Havinden
Sector: Media (Advertising)
Margaret Havinden (née Sangster) worked for one company for her whole career, W.S. Crawford, and played a major role in transforming it into one of Britain’s leading advertising agencies. During her forty years as an account executive, she built and led teams that gave numerous brands a new lease of life including Jaeger, Burton, Pretty Polly, Richard Shops and Kangol. As a Director of Crawfords for over thirty years, she showed that advertising was an industry where women could get to the top.
Advertising was not Margaret’s first career choice. Bon and brought up near Glasgow, she wanted to train as a doctor and won a place to read medicine at Glasgow University, but the collapse of her father’s business forced her to abandon her course in her first year and start work at the age of 19. Advertising was not even her second choice. Her two older sisters, Florence and Emily, had both found jobs working for William Crawford, a fellow Scot, in his recently-established advertising agency but when she came to London in 1915, Margaret took a job in a museum instead. However, when she was left unemployed at the end of the war she bowed to the inevitable.
Initially Margaret worked as an account executive’s assistant. When her boss left, she applied for his job and never looked back. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she viewed this as key job in an advertising agency, liaising between the client and all the other departments. ‘Only girls who have clear, alert minds, are tactful and sensitive..know how to be persuasive without being obstinate..and who are also..determined, can hope to succeed’, she later wrote. It is the closest she ever came to blowing her own trumpet.
When Emily returned to Scotland to get married, Margaret and Florence moved into a flat with another colleague, Kathleen Maclachlan. William Crawford was an influential ally of women in the workplace. He was very positive about the opportunities that had opened for women at work as a result of the First World War and followed through by employing a lot of women in the 1920s, including the writer Antonia White. Recognising that it was women who influenced most purchasing decisions, Crawfords ran campaigns in industry publications emphasising how well-placed it was to create winning campaigns because it employed so many talented women.
Women working in advertising had formed their own industry group before the First World War but by 1919 it had morphed into a cross-sector network. Women were excluded from the influential Thirty Club, where senior (male) figures in the industry got together so in 1923, ahead of a huge International Advertising Convention in Wembley the following year, Kathleen Maclachlan proposed re-establishing a membership organisation specifically for women in advertising. In September 1923, Kathleen, Margaret and Florence all became founder members of the Women’s Advertising Club of London (WACL) and Margaret was one of four members selected to speak at Wembley. Florence, who also spent her entire career at Crawfords as the CFO and right hand to William Crawford, and Margaret were both Presidents of WACL, Florence in 1926-7, Margaret in 1935-6.
Work, love and marriage
William Crawford was always keen to innovate and in 1922, he interviewed a young designer, Ashley Havinden (1903-1973), who was inspired by new European ideas on layout and typeface. Crawford decided to give him a chance but wanted to give him space to develop his concepts away from the main design studio so he put him into an office that also happened to be occupied by Margaret. She immediately saw the practical advantages of on-tap creative input and pulled Ashley on to her accounts. It was the start of a working partnership that would endure until Margaret retired from Crawfords. When copywriter GH ‘Bingy’ Saxon Mills joined the firm in 1924, the thee of them formed what a colleague later described as a ‘a rare, powerful triumvirate, perhaps even more like a troika, where a determined Boadicea held the inspired reins’.
Crawford assigned the trio to accounts he thought would respond to their innovative proposals and was vindicated when in 1925 the team won the Chrysler business with a visually stylish, successful campaign built around speed and performance. It established Chrysler in Britain so successfully that Crawfords was given a European-wide brief and in 1927 Margaret, a fluent German speaker, and Ashley headed to Berlin to set up an office there. Margaret had married John Blair, a retailer, in May 1923 but in October 1927 she started divorce proceedings and on 21st December 1928, now back in Hampstead, she and Ashley were married. Four months later, they were both made Directors of Crawfords joining Florence (left) who had been made a Director in 1921. Ashley (right) was also made Art Director.
Florence Sangster c. 1926
by Frank Davis, 29 Newman Street, W.1.
WACL Collection – History of Advertising Trust
Margaret and Ashley had two children, Michael (1928-2022) and Venice (b.1931). Margaret’s decision to continue working made her a visible and important role model for other working women during the 1930s. She was always clear that she could only do it with help, employing a nanny whom she trusted to take care of the children and a housekeeper to whom she was happy to delegate the running of the house.
The Jaeger re-brand
Margaret took a keen interest in fashion – in 1937 she spent the equivalent of £30,000 on clothes, which gives some sense of how much she was earning by then – and built a strong reputation through her strategic approach to account management and willingness to challenge clients. One of her biggest achievements was her role in transforming Jaeger into a leading fashion brand in the early 1930s.
Jaeger originally started life as Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Company Ltd, which promoted the health properties of wearing wool next to the skin. An enterprising UK businessman, Lewis Tomalin, bought the UK brand rights and opened a shop near Moorgate in London in 1884, where its customers included Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Early catalogues are packed with pictures of vests, tights, sportswear, balaclavas and sleeping bags and its advertising boasted of supplying clothing for all the early Polar expeditions. Jaeger was functional, not fashionable.
In 1929, Lewis’s grandson, Humphrey Tomalin, hired Maurice Gilbert from Selfridge’s to drive a major brand re-positioning. Gilbert thought that the fabrics were marvellous but the styling was awful: it was time for new designs and a modern retail experience. Advertising clearly had a critical role to play. Crawfords won the brief and Margaret got to work. Working with Ashley, she created a new brand identity that is still recognisable today, nearly a century later.
Margaret put an up-and-coming writer on interiors and recent Crawfords recruit, Derek Patmore, in charge of publicity. Patmore had hung around with some of the Bright Young Things in the late 1920s and used his connections to rope in Oliver Messel to design high-profile catwalk shows where fashionable socialites modelled the new Jaeger lines. Another key member of the team was the American display designer, Martha Harris. Forced by the depression to come to London to seek work, she contacted Margaret who gave her a chance and commissioned her to design the Jaeger windows. Pinning garments to flat two-dimensional cut-outs rather than placing them over 3-D mannequins and creating scaled down models and outfits that allowed the whole 1932 autumn collection to be shown in one window were just a couple of her innovative ideas that attracted widespread Press attention. She set up her own business and went on to work with other Crawfords clients, always acknowledging the break Margaret had given her.
Jaeger’s turnover rose by 25% in both 1931 and 1932 and the re-branding was even given the royal seal of approval when on 6th April 1932, the Duchess of York visited Jaeger’s Oxford Street store and said how fascinated she was by the new advertising. Writing in the staff magazine in 1932, Margaret’s pride in what the team had achieved shines through:
“Sometimes looking back can be a saddening experience, as Lot’s wife found. All those things we might have done, ‘had we only known’ rise up to reproach us for our lack of initiative and courage. Exactly the opposite is true of Jaeger’s. As we look back over the last three years, what do we see – at each turning point of the road there stands not a pillar of salt, but a monument to the courageous spirit which permeates the whole firm…The germ of enthusiasm has spread like an epidemic. Those fatal words ‘it can’t be done’ have been erased permanently from the Jaeger dictionary and a new phrase ‘Let’s try it’ has become the watchword of the company.” (Jaeger Staff Review, Christmas 1932)
Alison Settle, editor of Vogue, was just one of the people impressed with the Jaeger transformation and when she founded the Fashion Group of Great Britain in 1935, with the aim of raising the profile of British design, embracing dress, interiors and buildings, she asked Margaret to be Secretary. It had some high-profile successes, including sending a collection across to New York on the new RMS Queen Mary, but the war caused its demise. However, the Board of Trade soon realised that they needed to continue to support the British fashion industry. Margaret was made Chair of the Dress Designers’ Committee that organised a South American Exhibition of mannequins sporting designs by the top British couture houses. In late 1941 she became the first Chair of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (ISLFD), aimed at showing Britain could do couture, with members including Norman Hartnell, Victor Stiebel and Lucy Duff Gordon’s former protégé, Edward Molyneux.
Mixing business and pleasure
Between 1929 and 1938, Margaret and Ashley lived on Alvanley Gardens in West Hampstead, just down the road from Florence. In 1932, Ashley started to take carving lessons from Henry Moore, crossing the Finchley Road and walking up to his Parkhill Road Studio. Their social circle grew to include other Hampstead-based artists including Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. As the situation in Germany worsened, Bauhaus legends Walter Gropius and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy fled to London and joined the gang. The Havindens were a sociable pair and liked making connections: it was through them that Eileen Agar met Paul Nash in 1935, the starting point for their important collaboration.
Also involved in the Jaeger transformation were John and Madeleine Duncan Miller, who designed the modern shop fronts and interiors. Through them the Havindens met the architect Wells Coates, architect of the modernist Isokon Flats. In 1935 they all rented a house together in the Hampshire countryside and threw weekend parties where artists, architects, writers and industry friends mingled. One of the reasons Crawfords was so successful between the wars was because Margaret and Ashley translated these connections into innovative campaigns. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Rodney Thomas and the photographer Yevonde were just some of the creative talents they involved in Crawfords’ client work. Margaret became skilled at dealing with artistic temperaments.
In 1938 the family moved a duplex apartment in the modernist apartment block, Highpoint II. It was meant to be a short-term rental while they looked for a house out of London but the war intervened. In 1941, with fears running high of a German invasion, Ashley and Margaret decided to send their children to the United States for what they thought would be six months. Margaret threw herself into her work, going into Crawfords nearly every day to keep the business running and heading up to the roof of the Highpoint building at night to watch out for aeroplanes. As the months without the children turned into years, Margaret confessed to Ben Nicholson in May 1943 that ‘I often wish we had not given way to the impulse to send them’ and soon afterwards took advantage of a lull in hostilities to band together with some other families to bring the children home via Portugal. In 1949, the family finally moved to a forty-acre estate in Hertfordshire with a Queen Anne farmhouse for which Maxwell Fry designed a modern extension in 1959.
Post war business growth
Although Margaret was only Chair of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers for a short time, Crawfords continued to work on branding and publicity events for the ISLFD well into the 1950s including private fashion shows for members of the Royal Family.
Crawfords continued to expand and during the 1950s and 60s. Margaret’s clients included Liberty’s, Kosset Carpets, Pretty Polly and the Burton Group, which became a client in 1953 when it embarked on its own transformation from tailor to retailer and spent the equivalent of £7.5m with Crawfords in one year alone.
Florence, now Vice Chair, retired in 1955 and Margaret in 1962. By then Crawfords had over 300 employees in London, offices across Europe and in Pakistan and South Africa and was active in over 30 export markets.
Margaret continued to work for Crawfords on an advisory basis into the late 1960s but, initially at least, sorely missed the cut and thrust of working life, particularly with Ashley continuing working until 1967. She kept an eye on what her former clients were doing and was prepared to tell them if she thought they were making a mistake. In a letter to Lenny Jacobson, chair of the Burton Group, in 1963 she shared her dismay at the new direction their advertising (no longer done by Crawfords) had taken and offered to meet him to talk about it. His response is not documented…
At a loose end, Margaret started to consider more domestic pursuits, but her friend and colleague Rosemary Borland had a better idea:
‘If I ever find you messing around with lavender bags and all that I’ll bang you over the head… Won’t you please write? There isn’t an authentic record of the growth of advertising over the last thirty years from the woman’s angle – with Sir William, during the war & after it. Who else can tell such a tale – & look what background information will be lost to posterity if you don’t write it. So now, my dear dear friend, let us have some more real “Margaret fireworks”!
Alas, it seems Margaret did not take Rosemary’s advice. She died on 22nd September 1974, taking her stories and fireworks with her. The Crawfords brand has also gone, ultimately absorbed into Saatchi & Saatchi. But some of the brands that Margaret re-invigorated still live on and I suspect that is what would have mattered to her.
Archives: Jaeger & Co Ltd – City of Westminster Archives Centre; WACL archives – History of Advertising Trust; Ashley Havinden Archives – National Galleries of Scotland; Interview with M.Havinden 27.2.1940 – Mass Observation Archives, University of Sussex; Tate Gallery Archives
Books: Designing Women by Ruth Artmonsky (2012); Silver and Gold by Norman Hartnell (1955); An Autobiography by Derek Patmore (1960) There is a Tide by G.H. Saxon-Mills, (1954); Dylan Thomas: A Literary Study by Derek Stanford (1954); A Fashion of Life by Harry Yoxall (1966); London Couture and the Making of a Fashion Centre by Michelle Jones (2022)
Articles / essays: ‘Ashley Havinden: Life and Work’ by Michael Havinden in Advertising and the Artist: Ashley Havinden (2003); ‘Advertising’ by Margaret Havinden in Careers and Vocational Training: A guide to the professions and occupations of educated women and girls (1951); ‘Design’s Debt to Ashley’ by F.H.K. Henrion in The Penrose Graphic Arts International Annual 1974 ed. Bryan Smith P.33-46; ‘Modern Woman has two Faces’ by Joan Woollcombe in Britannia and Eve 1/3/1936; ‘The Business Mother’ by Ixx in Nottingham Journal 11/5/1938; ‘Creativity, Capital and Tacit Knowledge’ by Stefan Schwarkopf in Journal of Cultural Economy (2008), 1:2, P.181-197; ‘Women in British window display during the 1920s and 1930s’ by Kerry Meakin in History of Retailing and Consumption (2021) 7:3
Newspapers / magazines
The Tatler 2/4/1930; Birmingham Post 7/3/1941